Archive for: October, 2011

Adventures in teaching

Oct 31 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

As part of a graduate class assignment I gave students a pre-review draft of a manuscript* and asked them to review it. We had discussed review, but none had experience with it. To complicate the matter, the class draws a wide range of students with varying backgrounds. Some were obviously more familiar with the background and topic of the manuscript than others. I later gave them the actual reviews of the paper and the final published version. Overall, I think this was a useful exercise and they appear to have as well.

But now I am grading their reviews and realizing that they are incredibly difficult to evaluate. In retrospect I could have given them clearer expectations for this assignment, but their work on this assignment is far more scatter shot than any of the previous assignments. I have no idea what to do with these.

*The manuscript was a review, intended for a broad audience.

10 responses so far

What scares you most?

Oct 31 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

It's Halloween so I thought I might write a bit about the things that have scared me in my career and how I have overcome them. Some are obvious, some less so, but the overwhelming theme in addressing what I have perceived as weakness at some point has been to just work like hell on them. It's not fancy, but sometimes you gotta bang your head on a wall for a while before you break through.

Public speaking
There are very few people who take to public speaking naturally. The first time I gave a talk at a scientific meeting I thought my knee caps were going to detach because they were shaking so badly and I'm pretty sure I sweated through my shirt. That experience only heightened my fear of speaking and the next few talks I gave were painful, both in their delivery and the physical havoc my body endured. But after 5 or so, I noticed that I was feeling better and realized it was critical to get more experience. I started seeking out opportunities to present (grad student conferences, local hobbyist groups that my work might interest) and I steadily gained confidence. Nerves before a talk are now a distant memory and once you become comfortable on stage it comes across to the audience.

Scientific writing
Another hurdle for a lot of students is gaining confidence in their writing. While this is another case of practice helping, it also helps tremendously to read a lot and to pay close attention to edits people make on your work. Whereas "track changes" can facilitate moving drafts of a paper around it can also make it easy to correct writing without considering why you are making that correction. I think it is critical to use hard copy drafts in the early stages of writing a manuscript and to think about the changes others make to your writing. This is true throughout your training, as different mentors can offer unique insight. Although I was confident in my writing after my Ph.D. I still learned a lot about the subject as a postdoc. I will always remember my postdoc supervisor telling me that he knew he didn't have to worry about my writing anymore when I started refusing to make certain changes to the text and he realized I was right.

Unfortunately, practice makes perfect here too. If you are pushing yourself, this is largely a business of rejection. The majority of us will see our manuscripts and grant proposals kicked back at us more than we would like, but you need to be able to get over the emotion of getting things rejected and learn how to spin that effort into something productive. Perseverance can be as important as most things in the business.

Coming up with Big Ideas
I have written about this before, but it is worth mentioning again. For a variety of reasons I wanted to take a step sideways from my postdoc work, but doing so required that I start a research program largely from scratch. We can debate the merits of this (I might do it slightly different if given a second chance) but starting your lab does require you to move in an independent direction. For me this came from merging my somewhat diverse training and identifying a whole in the literature that I could fill. Coming up with this was at times frustrating and at times painful, but it was very good for my transition to running a lab and worth the nights staring at the ceiling.

If this doesn't scare you, you've either already had substantial experience developing and implementing a course, or you have no idea what it is like having 3 slides done at 10:30pm the night before a 9:00 lecture for 120 students. The first course I had to teach myself, I constantly felt like I was ten steps behind and that I was short changing the students. They certainly did not get the experience that my students this year will, but there's not much I can do about that. Everyone has to learn and there is no substitute for learning by fire. Those first students may not like you, but even though they have no idea, they are taking one for the team so that future classes will benefit.

Outside of running my lab into the ground (I'm trying NOT to practice this one) and natural disaster that wipes out our data, I think these were the biggest professional fears for me.

How about you?

17 responses so far

Friday evening chillin

Oct 28 2011 Published by under [Et Al]

No responses yet

Should grad students chase the money?

Oct 27 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Since we've been talking about grad student applications this week, I noticed that Dr. Zen had a post up about choosing a grad program. Normally a purveyor of decent advice, Dr. Zen has the following to say:

Deciding on a grad program is a complicated choice. Do you pick based on the institutional name? The program? The advisor? Here’s a way to simplify your decision.

Which program will pay you the most?

Money talks, bullshit walks.

I’m not saying you should choose only by that criterion. But it is a quick way to shake out who wants you the most.

I couldn't disagree with this more. While I understand the importance of the stipend when it comes to supporting oneself and possibly family in these situations, how much does your sanity cost? How about your lifestyle? Can I give you an extra grand a year to be at my beck and call at all hours? Will you routinely put in 16 hour days for an extra $2K? How much will it cost for you to sell your free will and self respect?

I'm going to hope the good doctor was joking, because disregarding little things like student happiness, departmental/lab culture, graduation rates and your interest in the research being done, all in the name of a couple extra bucks is, in my mind, profoundly stupid and short-sighted.

But hey, it's just 4 - infinity years of your life, right? You can survive that. And you'll have more money to pay for therapy if you end up in a lab that breaks your soul.

15 responses so far

Writing a personal statement for grad school in biology

Oct 26 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Commenter Liz asked yesterday about personal statements for grad school and it struck me as something I could write a quick response to.

First the don'ts

As I mentioned yesterday, don't write about your child science inspiration. A letter that starts out "when I was young..." immediately makes me want to stab my eyes out.

As Odyssey pointed out, don't use personal experience as a motivation to stamp out disease. We get it, lot's of people have diseases.

Don't relate your passion for science by including quotes from Nietzsche or Mother Goose. Seen both. True story.

Don't think that length = impressive. Usually it = boring as hell and only partially read.

Don't describe a detailed research plan for what you think you want to do.

As for the Do's

Realize who your audience is. What does a PI want to see in your letter? Competence as a writer, demonstrated experience in research, ability to concisely describe one's research (h/t bugdoc) and evidence that you have done some homework when it comes to what you would like to do in grad school.

That's pretty much it. It doesn't have to be a work of literary genius, but it should be clear and concise. Get across that you have research experience, you have learned something about how science works and that you want in on the deal.

Finally, look like you considered what a particular program or lab can offer. If you are applying to a rotation, write about the strength of the department in the field you are interested. Perhaps you enjoyed the 2010 paper by Dr. Schnapps on Ethanol treatment of Care Bears and would be interested in discussing future directions with this work. And maybe you were impressed by Dr. Gliter's 2011 work on unicorn rainbow jumping and would appreciate the opportunity to discuss projects applying unicorn jumping behavior to other meteorological conditions. If you are applying directly to a lab, then talk about the work being done in that lab and where you would be interested in contributing. Again, remember that proposing your own line of research that fits with where you think the lab is going is not a great strategy.

Above all, be organized, prepared and concise. And don't talk about your childhood.

12 responses so far

What am I looking for in an undergrad applicant for grad school?

Oct 25 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

As part of my duties in my department I have undergraduate advisees. Lots of them. Around this time of year many of the senior students are completing their graduation audits and have to meet with me. A popular topic during these meetings is "How do I get into grad school".

Now if you are just asking that question at this point in your academic career and you want to apply for grad school right after your undergrad, there is not a whole lot you can do that is going to make you stick out as an applicant that isn't already in the books. That is not to say you can't get into grad school if you decide late in the game, rather that you won't have much time to enhance your CV.

So what do grad advisors look for in the applications they receive? That depends on the type of school that you are applying to and whether or not they have a rotation program, etc. If you are applying to a program, then your stats (GPA, GRE) are going to be the main determination of whether or not you get in. My experience, however, mostly lays with the lab recruiting model, where PIs make the admission recommendations based on the individuals they would like to join their lab. In this case, PIs are evaluating the pool of candidates with the specific intention of accepting someone into their lab. Both the rotation and direct systems have pluses and minuses which are not the point here.

As someone who directly recruits, I am probably looking for slightly different things from someone directly out of undergrad. I want to know what they did that got them interested in research.

Unless a candidate's GRE scores are notably bad, I pretty much disregard them. GPA is also fairly useless, as a lower GPA in important classes can be masked by A's by a minor in Underwater Basket Weaving. I look at the transcript and check how a student did in courses related to what they need to know for the work we do. But all of that is pretty basic.

More importantly, in an ideal world I am looking for evidence that a candidate has gotten involved in actual science. Sometimes this is as simple as seeing research credits on a transcript, but even this can be deceiving because "research" in some labs is equivalent to washing dishes. Also, a lot of students don't take research for credit, getting paid or exploited simply experience, instead. Even a semester at a field station where science is taken outside of the classroom can be some indication that an applicant has gotten their hands dirty, so to speak.

So the reference letters, to me, are extremely critical when I am evaluating an applicant. I want to know whether a student has been involved in a lab and whether they showed any aptitude for the work. There are plenty of students who are great in the classroom but just can't cut it in a lab environment. They might be great for some branches of scientific research, just not the one I live on. I want to know what the referees think of the student's potential in the lab based on their past observations. A reference from a classroom prof caries much less weight for me than someone who has seen the student work and interact in a research environment.

Once I have screened the applicant pool for students that have gotten involved in research, have demonstrated an aptitude for it and have the academic background they need to succeed in my lab, those go on the top of the pile and I work back from there until I get a group I am comfortable interviewing. I often end up interviewing candidates who don't have research experience, so it is not as though it is an inflexible selection criterion.

One of my biggest fears in bringing in an individual that will upset the fairly happy lab culture, so interviews are another critical step for me. I have seen a lab group really torn apart by a single individual, and my main focus of an interview is to do everything I can to ensure an applicant would add to, or at least not be a negative influence on, my group.

By the time everything is taken into consideration it is generally pretty easy to narrow things down to the people who I want to focus my recruiting effort on, and so far this "system", for lack of a better term, has worked out well.

Oh, and DO NOT start your personal statement with a tale of your childhood. I'm not kidding. Don't.

13 responses so far

Bean counting

Oct 24 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

For the purpose of an annual review and the tabulation of the year's "effort", does re-reviewing a manuscript for the same journal (after it was declined or sent back with major revisions) count as a second review, or as part of one review process?

9 responses so far

Adobe Illustrator page

Oct 24 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I finally did something last week that was long overdue. I added all the Adobe Illustrator posts to a single page with it's own tab just over there above the Scientopia logo. It's been a while since I added anything so I thought it might be a good time to do so.

I looked over those posts and nothing immediately jumped to mind to add, so I will leave it up to you. What would you like to know in Illustrator that has not been covered in the three posts already added?

2 responses so far

Don't live with regret

Oct 21 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Good news readers! With our help the Looking at the World a Little Closer project was funded! The teacher in charge of the project, Mr. Spencer, had this to say:

Thank you so much for funding my project "Looking at the World a Little Closer." Due to all the generous donations, the students at our school will have the opportunity to work with a high-tech USB microscope in the field. This could not have been possible without your support. My students and I thank you from the bottom of our heart. People like you make inquiry based learning possible for the 650 students that come through my science lab each week.

With gratitude,
Mr. S

Thank you to everyone who helped out with this project and the many others who have given. As a whole, the Science Blogger community has raised nearly $47,000. I'm proud that we have been a part of it.

For those of you who haven't given yet, there is still time. Click on the link to the right and get your donation in, large or small. You don't want to have to live with regret.

No responses yet

Surely we can raise $90 in 30 hours

Oct 21 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

We're almost there, folks. We need $90 to complete the "Looking at the World a Little Closer" project. Hit the link on the right to the giving page and toss a couple of bucks at the project. If you do before midnight tomorrow, you'll get a gift card that can be used to double your impact.

You'll feel better than if you spend $5 on education for kids in areas of high poverty than you will if you eat a foot long at Subway, I promise.

And thanks to Michael, Martha and Tegan for donating today.

2 responses so far

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